They were like guests at a surprise party waiting for your arrival and now you have entered the room their room, not the real one around you or so it mysteriously seems The whole scene twinkles with expectation That is the first sensation on the threshold of the gallery in the Prado where Las Meninas hangs that you have walked into their world and become suddenly as present to them as they are to you.And what keeps them here, what keeps them alive, or so the artist implies, is not just the painting but you It has been twenty plus years since I was last in the Prado, but I do still remember this painting It wasn t a scene that would usually be of much interest to me At first glance, there is nothing really going on in this painting, barring a princess getting ready for a ball or a dinner party or to meet some dignitaries from another court from another country It would be easy to pass it by, except for the scale of the painting It is huge Instead of scurrying on past, I suddenly found myself trapped under the gaze of the painting These people, all long dead but very much alive, are looking at me as if I just interrupted their activities by walking in the room These sensations I felt that day all come back to me when I read Laura Cumming s description above I, without intention, have fallen into 1656 Of course, in real life we can t stare at people like I stared at the people in this painting I think that at any second the little girl would lift a hand to her face and giggle, or Velazquez himself would raise an eyebrow at my imprudence They are so guileless and welcoming Velazquez has immortalized all these people from the dwarfs to the ladies in waiting, from the artist to the king and queen reflected in the mirror, as if everyone in this painting were, at least in paint, equal For Velazquez everyone is unique, and by him showing us their remarkableness, they become indispensible to the rest of usHe finds a Venus and a Mars in the humble people around him, sees a king as compellingly ordinary and is able to make an old man selling water seem like an ancient prophet There is an extraordinary equality to his empathetic gazeIf Velazquez had only painted Las Meninas, he would have been immortal, but luckily for the rest of us, he shared his gift in a number of paintings, not enough, mainly because he became so successful in the court of Philip IV that his duties to the king, beyond just painting portraits, were taken up with tasks that would have been better left to others The story may have begun in the 17th century, but the second act happened in the 19th century when a bookseller by the name of John Snare bought a painting at a liquidation sale Take it from me, booksellers are always trouble, and Snare was no exception Now just being in the book business, we can assume that Snare was gently mad There is something about art, books, and race horses that take the gently mad to the certifiably insane This painting, luminescent beneath the grime of dust and smoke, is of the Prince of Wales, the future Charles the first, significant in the fact that he is young, but sports the beard he grew while he was petitioning Philip IV for an alliance with his daughter.In 1649, Charles is overthrown by Oliver Cromwell and his supporters and very publically beheaded He wore two shirts to the execution so that a morning chill would not be misinterpreted as a shiver of fear He put his head on the block and signaled the executioner he was ready by spreading out his arms Regardless of whether history sees him as a good king or a terrible one, his courage in his last moments was incontestable Could the painting be the long lost Velazquez portrait It could be a Van Dyck, who painted Charles many times There is something though about the eyes and the deftness of the brush that convinces Snare that it must be Velazquez He sets out to prove it Laura Cumming found herself consulting the same exact sources that Snare did almost a hundred and seventy years earlier He displays it and makes some money off people coming to see this painting by a Spanish painter rarely seen in England Snare has a lien that doesn t exist slapped against the painting by unscrupulous people in an attempt to steal and sell the painting before the court system can prevail He survived that near parting with his precious and yes, there is a bit of Gollum in Snare He is later sued by an estate believing that the painting was stolen from a private collection He goes bankrupt defending his right to own the painting, but even though he wins the court case, he leaves for America He doesn t run away, like a normal man, with a young doxy He runs away with a painting.Snare leaves a wife and children One child is born after he leaves His paterfamilia responsibilities are superseded by his responsibility to art He could have sold the painting for a handsome sum and avoided bankruptcy I can imagine he considered it, but who he is, by this time, is so defined by being the owner of this Velazquez that he can t give it up It would be like selling Secretariat or selling a building with your name on it or selling a Gutenberg Bible You know that by selling something that precious that you will never be able to own it again Cumming not only expanded my knowledge of Velazquez exponentially, but also introduced me to a 19th century, mad as a hatter version of myself whom I understood completely I knew that Velazquez was an important painter I learned that at the Prado, when I laid my eyes on Las Meninas, the people of the Spanish court laid their eyes on me He was such a humanist He depicted dwarfs and poor people and famous people and royalty with the same deft brush strokes He held no one up for ridicule, but showed each of his subject with the power of their uniqueness, evident for all to see He was a maestroEven now one wonders how he could know where to place that speck of white that ignites a string of flashing glints across pale silk, how to convey the stiff transparency of gauze with a single dab of blue on grey, how to paint eyes that see us, but are themselves indecipherable How could he lay paint on canvas so that it is as impalpable as breath, or create a haze that seems to emit from a painting like scent, or place a single dab of red on the side of a head so that it perfectly reads as an earVelazquez sold this painting of The Water seller, but then when he had the chance, he bought it back and kept it for the rest of his life.It would have made everything so much easier if Velazquez had signed all of his paintings, but then the that I get to know the man, the I realize that he was saying something by not signing them He was but an instrument of his talent His paintings belonged to the world If you wish to see of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit also have a Facebook blogger page at An excellent overview of the work of Diego Velazquez and his standing among the Old Masters It s also the story of one man transfixed to the point of monomania by one of Velazquez s works, John Snare, a 19th century bookseller and collector Highly recommended. Two enigmatic men are the subject of this book John Snare, a bookseller and printer, is an ordinary Victorian man who in 1845 attends an inauspicious auction of artefacts from a boys school that has closed down There he sees a painting which casts a spell over him It s a portrait of King Charles I, listed in the catalogue as possibly by Van Dyck However Charles is so young in the picture that Snare believes it might be the rumoured but never seen painting by Vel zquez, executed when Charles visited the Spanish court as a young prince to woo King Philip IV s daughter At this point in time virtually no one outside Spain has ever seen a Vel zquez Snare buys the painting for 8 He removes some of the grime from a corner of the picture with a moistened finger and loves what he uncovers His quest now is to prove to the world it s the Vel zquez painting The other subject of this book is the largely mysterious Vel zquez himself, a man who left virtually no written account of his life and didn t even sign his paintings Vel zquez was my old history of art teacher s favourite painter and I know she would love the eloquence of praise Cummings heaps on the Spanish painter.The author Laura Cummings does a great job of intertwining the two narratives Snare s story is a tale of obsessive, self destructive love, of the little man fighting the establishment, of class prejudice and inequality Just as he is beginning to convince the world his painting is the Vel zquez it is repossessed by its supposed former owners, an aristocratic Scottish family, and a protracted court case begins, in the process of which Snare goes bankrupt and has to auction all his belongings, leaving his wife and children in poverty The only thing of worth he doesn t sell is the painting, even though the proceeds would have solved all his financial difficulties He can t bring himself to part with the picture Instead he flees with it to New York At this point the painting and his sense of injustice has become precious to him than his wife and family The outcome of this book s investigations is a bit of a let down We don t get a happy or tidy ending No reproduction of this painting exists and the painting which caused John Snare so much suffering has vanished without trace Rather like Vel zquez the man I enjoyed this for several reasons The insights it gave into the snobbery and sense of entitlement of the upper classes in Victorian Britain and the virtually insurmountable obstacles placed in the way of the common man with cultural aspirations were especially fascinating Also it s a fabulous detective story at times It also offers an inspired and inspiring evaluation of the art of Vel zquez. Hmm, a nice book.Chapters mostly alternate between the story of one John Snare, a mid ninetenth century bookseller, stationer and printer from Reading who bought at auction a painting that he became convinced was a portrait of Charles I by Vel zquez, and chapters generally about Vel zquez.If I may be so bold, I like Vel zquez, and one of my pleasures is to admire his works as presented in the National Gallery in London, where I might see his Majesty King Philip IV, or Christ visiting Mary Martha and thanks to this book I learn that many of those pictures are war loot, captured by the Duke of Wellington from the abandoned baggage of Joseph Buonaparte lately King of Spain after his defeat at the battle of Vittoria 1813 , as celebrated by Beethoven, Vel zquez was not it seems particularly valued by the Buonapartes, a painting by Leonardo, and some by some other guy I ve forgotten were packaged up and sent under escort back to Paris, but not the Vel zquezs which had been just dragged from Madrid across country and then abandoned in the town of Vittoria, one might have thought that Wellington would have returned the looted art works to a newly liberated Spain, but good old Albion didn t get the reputation for being perfidious for nothing So I m a soft audience for any book about Vel zquez and easily impressed Cumming plainly loves Vel zquez too, her writing about his work glows off the page, so much so I am convinced that I could read the book in the dark.The problem is, the story of John Snare, it is interesting enough and it would make a great five or seven page article in the colour Sunday supplement to your newspaper of choice forgive me for assuming you are as ancient old as myself and as fond of leafing through a newspaper as me but there s not enough to it I feel to sustain half a book, so reading I was completely wowed and happy for the first hundred pages, then I met my Waterloo, or Vittoria, and read on with a limp.It is a tale of Nomen ist Omen John Snare was attracted by an advert for an auction, spotted a picture at a viewing that captivated him, bought it, and caught by it became convinced that it was a portrait of Charles I as Prince of Wales, painted by Vel zquez while the Prince was attempting not nearly well enough, to win himself a Spanish royal bride But at least he left with the painting, and on the rebound picked himself up a French princess instead Snare had the painting cleaned, he researched it as well he could to establish a provenance for it, exhibited it and had various adventures with it He is in Cumming s telling mildly obsessed with the painting, sleeping with it in the same room, not curled up under it or with it in his loving arms view spoiler as I said mildly obsessed, not completely infatuated hide spoiler An obsession with a work of art led to the ruin of a British man, John Snare In 1845, Snare purchased an old painting at an auction He thought it might be a painting of Charles I, painted by Velazquez when the future English king visited Madrid In this true story, author Laura Cumming tells about Snare s infatuation and eventual financial ruin He lost his bookstore and print shop, left his family, and devoted his life to researching and showing the painting The book also discusses Velazquez s artistic gifts, and his life as a painter and a courtier in the 17th Century Cumming continued Snare s detective work with only written descriptions guiding her The portrait of Charles I disappeared after Snare s death, and no one knows if it was destroyed or is now in a private collection The book combines a mystery, a biography, and art history into an interesting story that art lovers should enjoy. BOTWhttp www.bbc.co.uk programmes b06x8vq2Description Laura Cumming charts the obsession of a 19th century Reading bookseller with a portrait of Charles I painted when the Monarch was a young man on a visit to Madrid The Spanish genius Velasquez painted very few pictures, so did John Snare discover a long lost treasure And if so, where is it now This is a story about the intense emotions that great art can provoke passions that sometimes verge on the irrational and which transcend considerations of value John Snare s conviction about the painting he bought evolved into a dispute with those who had money, power and influence In a sense, the missing Velasquez became a battleground for class war and the individual against the establishment But at the heart of the story lies a work of art, created with such skill and delicacy that it inspired the fiercest of feelings and continues to exert its mysterious pull to this day.Episode 1 An auction bargain ignites a humble bookseller with a lifelong obsession2 5 It is 1847 and John Snare invites the public to admire his Velazquez portrait3 5 The Lost Velasquez is put on show in Edinburgh at the beginning of 1849 But soon Snare finds himself having to fend off not just challenges over the portrait s authenticity,but also overownership.4 5 The Velasquez has been restored to Snare but he has now vanished until the portrait is advertised for show on Broadway in 1860 The Reading bookseller has fled to America.5 5 In 1888 a Velasquez portrait of Prince Charles is reported as being lent to the Reading Art Museum by the widow of John Snare Somehow the picture has returned to Britain.Laura Cumming how Vel zquez gave me consolation in grief and set me on the trail of a lost portrait. In 1845, a humble bookseller named John Snare bought a painting at an auction, which was listed as being probably a Van Dyck but which he was convinced was a Velazquez This book tells the story of how that purchase took over Snare s life, not always for the better Along the way, Cumming writes a good deal about Velazquez s life and especially his art It is a very interesting story but where the book excels, for me, are the passages where Cumming writes about Velazquez s paintings She writes with a love and a reverence for his art, which I found inspiring and moving.I switched between the hardback edition and the audio for this book The audio was very ably narrated by Siobhan Redmond, but I was glad to have the book as well, mainly for the beautiful colour plates of Velzquez s paintings, especially the iconic Las Meninas. From BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week Laura Cumming charts the obsession of a 19th century Reading bookseller with a portrait of Charles I painted when the Monarch was a young man on a visit to Madrid The Spanish genius Velasquez painted very few pictures, so did John Snare discover a long lost treasure And if so, where is it now Episode 2 The portrait is set before the public and the press in the spring of 1847 Snare is determined that his discovery should be recognised as a work by the great Spanish court painter, but not everybody is willing to agree with him.Episode 3 The Lost Velasquez is put on show in Edinburgh at the beginning of 1849 But soon Snare finds himself having to fend off not just challenges over the portrait s authenticity,but also overownership.Episode 4 The Velasquez has been restored to Snare but he has now vanished until the portrait is advertised for show on Broadway in 1860 The Reading bookseller has fled to America.Episode 5 In 1888 a Velasquez portrait of Prince Charles is reported as being lent to the Reading Art Museum by the widow of John Snare Somehow the picture has returned to Britain.This is a story about the intense emotions that great art can provoke passions that sometimes verge on the irrational and which transcend considerations of value.John Snare s conviction about the painting he bought evolved into a dispute with those who had money, power and influence In a sense, the missing Velasquez became a battleground for class war and the individual against the establishment.But at the heart of the story lies a work of art, created with such skill and delicacy that it inspired the fiercest of feelings and continues to exert its mysterious pull to this day.Read by Siobhan RedmondWritten by Laura CummingAbridged by Isobel CreedProduced by Jill WatersA Waters Company production for BBC Radio 4.http www.bbc.co.uk programmes b06x8vq2http www.nytimes.com 2016 04 11 boo In , A Reading Bookseller Named John Snare Came Across The Dirt Blackened Portrait Of A Prince At A Country House Auction Suspecting That It Might Be A Long Lost Vel Zquez, He Bought The Picture And Set Out To Discover Its Strange History When Laura Cumming Stumbled On A Startling Trial Involving John Snare, It Sent Her On A Search Of Her Own At First She Was Pursuing The Picture, And The Life And Work Of The Elusive Painter, But Then She Found Herself Following The Bookseller S Fortunes Too From London To Edinburgh To Nineteenth Century New York, From Fame To Ruin And ExileAn Innovative Fusion Of Detection And Biography, This Book Shows How And Why Great Works Of Art Can Affect Us, Even To The Point Of Mania And On The Trail Of John Snare, Cumming Makes A Surprising Discovery Of Her Own But Most Movingly, The Vanishing Man Is An Eloquent And Passionate Homage To The Spanish Master Vel Zquez, Bringing Us Closer To The Creation And Appreciation Of His Works Than Ever Before The Vanishing Man Is A Riveting Detective Story And A Brilliant Reconstruction Of An Art Controversy, But It Is Also A Homage To The Art Of Vel Zquez, Written By A Critic Who Remains Spellbound By His Genius, As Readers Will Be Spellbound By This Book Colm T Ib N I love Velasquez and I like true detective stories but, for me, this book has been a bit overhyped The basic problem is that, despite all the research Laura Cumming has done, ultimately there is very little known about Velasquez life and background A masterful painter he may have been but as a personality he s no Carravagio or Van Gogh Likewise, John Snare, the Reading bookseller, who becomes obsessed with the portrait of the young Charles 1 that he believes to be by Velasquez is also a shadowy figure.There is rather too much detailed analysis of individual paintings and not quite enough history although the book certainly made me want to revisit Velasquez paintings.
Laura Cumming born July 1961 the art critic for The Observer In addition to her career in journalism, Cumming has written well received books on self portraits in art and the discovery of a lost portrait by Diego Vel zquez in 1845.
- 296 pages
- The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velazquez
- Laura Cumming
- 10 September 2018 Laura Cumming